The notion of a detective story set in the Third Reich is intriguing to anyone interested in the genre. A lone detective or policeman pursuing justice in an unjust world is a common theme for mystery writers — Soviet detectives in both the USSR and Czchoslovakia, a Chinese police officer (Qiu Xiaolong), a South African cop during apartheid (James McClure) – many such books exist, but Nazi Germany is the extreme case. Various writers from Durrenmatt to Philip Kerr have looked at police chasing murderers in this society where mass murder is a political feature. Their focus is on the detective, of course, because it is his moral dilemma that is interesting: how can one both pursue murderers and serve a murderous state? Is hunting a serial killer a useless exercise when killing is commonplace?
Marcel Petiot murdered at least 26 and perhaps more than 160 people between 1930 and 1944. He was arrested by both the Gestapo and Paris police during the German occupation of France. Both sets of cops freed him. Each of the police departments had political reasons for doing so.
Born in 1897, Petiot had a troubled youth and committed various petty crimes. At one point he was diagnosed as insane. He was gassed during the First World War and charged with theft from the convalescent homes where he recovered. After being sent back into the lines, Petiot shot himself in the foot to escape further action. Once again, he was labelled insane, though under the circumstances, one might question the diagnosis. After the war, Petiot returned to his studies and obtained a medical degree. His practice was irregular and may have involved abortions and selling drugs. He himself was a user of narcotics.
Petiot was living in the town of Villeneuve-sur-Yonne in 1926 when he began going out with a young woman who subsequently disappeared. She may have been Petiot’s first victim, but the police wrote her off as a runaway. That same year, Petiot ran for mayor and won after employing some shady tactics. He immediately began embezzling town funds. In 1930, one of his patients was robbed and murdered in her home. Petiot came under suspicion but his accuser, another of his patients, soon died as did a woman who accused him of selling narcotics. By 1931, there were so many complaints about Petiot that he was suspended from office. Immediately, he ran for Councillor and was elected but was thrown off Council in 1932 when it was discovered he had been stealing electricity. But Petiot had already given up on the Yonne district and moved to Paris.
In Paris, Petiot was suspected of performing abortions and peddling drugs. He was charged with shoplifting but pled that he suffered from kleptomania and was let off on the condition that he seek psychiatric help. In 1942 he was charged with selling drugs and convicted even though the two witnesses against him disappeared. He was fined. He began selling phony medical disability papers to men who wanted to escape being shipped to Germany as forced labor. Meanwhile, Petiot had discovered a more lucrative racket. Continue reading